ARLINGTON, VA (AP) Two dozen Latino men swarm to Joe Schilling’s pickup truck the moment he pulls into the parking lot. The landscaper is looking for help and he pays a good wage by day-laborer standards — $14 an hour.
After a few minutes, Schilling has picked his three men. They hop into his pickup, smiling broadly as they pull away and waving to the men who just a moment ago had been their competitors for work.
This scene is repeated daily throughout northern Virginia as men — overwhelmingly Latino — gather looking for construction and landscaping work or other odd jobs. But the Arlington site is unique in Virginia because the county spends tax dollars to manage the site.
A plan to create a similar center in Herndon, in neighboring Fairfax County, has erupted into controversy, with opponents saying it is improper to spend tax dollars to help illegal immigrants hunt for jobs.
The Herndon town council voted 5-2 to approve the center, which will receive a $170,000 county grant. But opponents, including the conservative legal group Judicial Watch, said they will sue to block the town’s plans.
Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said Herndon has become the national battleground as local officials seek to regulate growing numbers of Hispanic immigrants, often illegal, looking for odd jobs.
“This is the first significant legal challenge to these types of projects,” Fitton said of his impending lawsuit. “It will be a bellwether for many other localities.”
In Arlington, Schilling said he frequently relies on day laborers.
“These guys work twice as hard. I get a lot more work for my money,” Schilling said. “White guys, they just have too many expectations. My biggest problem with these guys is they’ll work so hard that they’ll do more than I ask them to do.”
Since 2003, a collection of benches and some rest rooms has served as a designated gathering spot in Arlington County for day laborers. The county spends approximately $200,000 annually to manage the site and a smaller one nearby.
Andres Tobar, executive director of the Shirlington Employment and Education Center, which manages the day-labor site, said a designated place simply brings order to an otherwise chaotic scene. Without it, workers will congregate on street corners and convenience store lots, and the resulting rush can create traffic and safety concerns, he said.
On any given day, between 20 to 30 workers will find jobs at the Shirlington site, not quite half of those who show up. Tobar said employers are encouraged to pay a fair wage, from $10 to $15 an hour depending on the work, maybe more for jobs requiring especially heavy labor.
Day laborers are not asked about their immigration status; Tobar acknowledged that most are not legal, but he said many are working through the immigration bureaucracy to obtain legal status, a process that can take years.
Some day laborers said they find work at the site only once or twice a week; others said they have better success.
Carlos Maldonado, who came to the United States from Guatemala as a child, said he looks for work at site because, without a car, it’s difficult to obtain a regular job.
“Here in northern Virginia there’s a lot of jobs. The problem is, ’How can you get there?’” he said.
Despite the creation of the Arlington site, an unregulated site still operates out of a nearby drugstore parking lot. Those who come to the county site, though, said the contractors at the county site tend to pay a little better.
Another big advantage of the county site, the workers agree, is that restrooms are available.
In Herndon, town council member Ann Null, who opposed the town-sponsored center, said she has visited the Arlington site and was not impressed. The biggest issue, she said, is that unregulated sites still flourish despite the creation of an official site.
“Aiding and abetting illegal aliens is just not what we’re supposed to be doing. Government should protect us from illegal activity rather than support it,” she said.
Herndon Mayor Michael O’Reilly said a government-designated site will enable the town to close a convenience store parking lot used as a day labor site.
“A regulated site where you can have restrooms and some control over what’s going on is better than what we currently have,” O’Reilly said.
While the Herndon proposal has generated intense interest — town council phone lines were jammed when a local talk-radio host opposed to the idea gave out the number — Arlington’s site has operated quietly with little controversy.
Arlington County Board member Walter Tejada said national anti-immigration groups have turned their sights on Herndon and turned a local issue into an ideological battleground.
“These immigrants … are willing to do jobs that those who criticize immigrants are not going to be doing any time soon,” Tejada said. “We can yell and complain, or we can find a constructive solution.”